Gilbey on Film: The eyes have it

Ocular obsessions in cinema.

"Scopophilia" is the term, popularised by film theorists, which describes the pleasure derived from looking (with its close cousin voyeurism key to the audience's relationship with the living dead on screen). But with it comes an inherent sensitivity to the damage which can be wrought on our eyes. Small wonder that so many filmmakers have taken such delight in probing and poking our peepers like sadistic ophthalmologists; any on-screen assault or injury can be keenly felt in the stalls, but one aimed directly at the very instruments of our enjoyment is guaranteed to treble the wince factor.

The second half of this year has been dominated for me by a rather nasty eye injury and subsequent surgery, which has given me plenty of time to reflect on the act of looking in cinema, and to daydream about the use and abuse of eyes in movies. At heart, every film is concerned with looking (even Derek Jarman's Blue, with its unchanging wash of colour) so anyone programming a festival devoted to the subject of eyes would need to be especially far-sighted.

The list of optical highlights I've compiled below omits this year's examples: We Need to Talk About Kevin cleverly substituted the peeling and eating of a lychee for an act of eye-related violence; Final Destination 5, which I didn't see, apparently featured an eye operation that goes wrong (reason enough for me to avoid the picture, though the addition of 3-D made watching it a practical impossibility); Julia's Eyes, about a woman suffering from a degenerative eye disease, featured a staggeringly nasty (non-CGI) moment in which the tip of a knife is held to the heroine's eyeball.

My list addresses moments rather than themes. After all, there are plenty of movies with blindness at their core: Magnificent Obsession, The Miracle Worker, Wait Until Dark, Blink, Afraid of the Dark (which offered a nice in-joke by casting Hilary Mason, the blind psychic from Don't Look Now, as the sole sighted character in the film's deranged second half) and, yes, Blindness. But any film can play on the vulnerability of our eyes, as this list demonstrates. There's surely enough here for a miniature film festival, even excluding optically-based films such as Iris, Apt Pupil, The Shop Around the Cornea and Disney's That Darn Cataract...


1.Un Chien Andalou

Too obvious? Then here's the Pixies performing "Debaser," their ferocious tribute to Buñuel and Dali's eye-watering short.

2. The Terminator: Arnie goes Andalou.

3.Gothic: An eyeful from the late Ken Russell

4. Pan's Labyrinth: The Pale Man - not easily palmed off.

5.They Live: The future's so Right, you've gotta wear shades.

6. A Clockwork Orange: Viddy this.

7.Les amants du Pont-Neuf: Juliette Binoche defers instant coolness on the monocular.

8. A Scanner Darkly: Night of a thousand eyes.

9. The Birds: Socket to 'em.

10. Broadway Danny Rose
Tina: "They shot him in the eyes."
Danny: "So he's blind?"
Tina: "Dead."
Danny: "Dead, of course, because the bullets go right through ..."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.